Death and the Maiden: Emily Dickinson’s Thematic Obsession with Death

Emily Dickinson continues to fascinate poetry lovers for numerous reasons. The reclusive spinster lived the life of the devoted artist, spending her short years composing over 1700 poems. Her powerful intellect and gifted use of language was so far ahead of its time, despite her minimal formal education, that less than 12 of her poems were published during her lifetime. Posthumously, Dickinson has ironically achieved the immortality that she so often wrote about in her work.

This essay studies three of Dickinson’s poems that deal exclusively with the theme of death: “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” and “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close.” Death represents a major theme in Emily Dickinson’s poems, and through arresting imagery the poet explores the idea of death, specifically in regards to its effects upon the living.

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In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” Dickinson begins the poem with the lines “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me” (Meyer n.p.). In these lines the poet articulates the universal struggle that humans have with death – the inevitability of it – the understanding that death cannot be avoided by anyone, no matter how busy or important they are.

Death’s intractable nature often offends the human being’s sense of importance. The haunting voice of Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” observes that the nature of time has changed since her death. “Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet, Feels shorter than the Day, I first surmised the Horses’ Heads, Were toward Eternity” (Meyer n.p.). Interestingly, the poem supports many interpretations of the poet’s thematic message.

Critics assert that the voice recalls her death from beyond the grave, or that Gentleman Death has placed her in purgatory, or that she wishes to die, and the poem expresses her death wish, or that the speaker notes the difference between the finite state of life and the infinite state of death (Joyner 1). Dickinson’s haunting poem, her most oft quoted, perfectly enunciates “the human’s lot of the realization of death to be so overwhelming that it makes time stand still” (Joyner 1).

“I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” details the last moments of a dying woman, witnessed by the lowliest of insects, the common house fly. Dickinson’s lines “with blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, between the light and me; And then the windows failed, and then, I could not see to see” create a close kinship between the reader and the speaker as she details her passage from life into death (Meyer n.p.).

Dickinson gives the voice of the poem to a speaker who in the midst of traversing “the border between life and death,” and as such “the association of dying with the noise of a common insect is all the more jarring coming from such an unusual authority” (Zarlengo 2).

Dickinson’s thematic message here appears to be that at the moment of death, the human desire to live is ignited, and the senses become acutely tuned and highly appreciative of the most mundane details of life, simply because they are leaving it. “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” contains an “ironic mixture of the common and the grand” and a quiet enjoyment of the final moments of life (Zarlengo 2).

In “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close” Dickinson asks the particularly insightful question of what happens after death, or more specifically, how the state of being dead might compare with the events of her life thus far, “in terms of hugeness and inconceivability” (Kelly 1) Dickinson’s lines “It yet remains to see, If Immortality unveil, A third event to me, So huge, so hopeless to conceive” (Meyer n.p.) As these lines demonstrate, as a poet Dickinson remains fearless enough to “skip past the intellectual ease of praising heaven and rejecting hell” (Kelly 1).

Thematically, this poems seems to point toward the burning question – what will the afterlife be like? More specifically, what if the afterlife is not as interesting or engaging as life? In critic David Kelly’s words, “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close” posits that “even worse than Eternity being bad would be if it were irrelevant: the very unsettling question this poem asks is whether heaven or hell will be as potent or as startling as our experiences here on Earth.

The Afterlife less interesting than life?” (Kelly 1). “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close” opens another door into the theme of death from Dickinson’s penetrating and sharp intellect.

Death clearly affected Dickinson powerfully while she wrote, and as readers of poetry her legacy remains the penetrating insight she offered toward this element of life that is the most disturbing and elusive. As a poet Dickinson explored the theme of death from multiple angles, not simply through common themes of loss and pain, but also through insightful intellectual pondering of the state of death and how it illuminates the character of life.

Works Cited

Joyner, Nancy Carol. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature. Ed. Jim Kamp. 3rd ed. London: St. James Press, 1994. Print.

Kelly, David. “Overview of ‘My Life Closed Twice before Its Close.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Mary K. Ruby and Ira Mark Milne. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale Group Publishing, 2000. Print.

Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. 9th ed. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.

Zarlengo, Kristina. “Critical Essay on ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz–When I Died.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Mary K. Ruby. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Group Publishing, 1999. Print.

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